Why Science Needs More Storytellers Than Number Crunchers

It’s a hot afternoon in April 2019 at the University of Ibadan. The venue is the 400 level science laboratory, department of Zoology. We are rounding up our research techniques course for the session, and this is one of the last few lectures in my master’s program in Ecology and Environmental Biology. Our lecturer, Dr Sowunmi Akindayo, says something that would remain with me. 

“Don’t conclude your research by saying the result was significant or insignificant. It says nothing and defeats the aim of the research.” 

We laughed over it because it looked like a no-brainer. But what we might not have readily thought about was that a seasoned lecturer and hydrobiology researcher par excellence had just made a comment based on over 15 years of lecturing and supervising. How important was this comment? Very important it would turn out. 

THE MISSING LINK

To be called a scientist, you have to be able to crunch numbers, solve problems, find, create, validate and explain theories behind how things happen. You may need to create models and develop new techniques and technologies for doing things. But the result of these researches might not be seen because the decision-makers responsible for mandating a nationwide implementation of these findings are not scientists. While we keep pushing for scientists to be part of policymakers, we can say that they are two varying fields that not many scientists can combine. Hence, when the information filters from the fields and laboratories to the places where decisions are made, the real result of the research is covered in science or research language. The main point has been lost. The urgency is lost. 

The problem is not farfetched. We have more number-crunching scientists than storytellers. This isn’t supposed to be but, understandably, the general perceptions about storytelling is that it has no place in science. That is why a typical scientific article is more boring than not. Not to say that this is unnecessary, but if we must experience the real effect of the multitudes of research that go on in a year, scientists must get better at storytelling. So what is storytelling, and how does it matter? 

WHAT HAS STORYTELLING GOT TO DO WITH THIS?

Storytelling in its nature is emotionally involving, and with the employment of varying narratives, nearly everyone who is a target audience finds themselves in the multitudes of narratives available. Storytelling brings home an abstract concept and helps people understand what is at stake. You can’t take action on something you don’t understand. That is why there is a thriving market for science fiction (books and movies). A lot of people can make sense of science theories when they are applied. Humans are wired for stories, and if we must start having better implementation, scientists need to tie the stories their research discover more appropriately. There is already a huge amount of data. We now need to match them with the appropriate stories and inspire action, the way it is meant to be. 

Storytelling has found a home in marketing and brand development. By shedding light on a problem and providing a solution, tied to an emotional charge, businesses and marketers have been able to spur people to an action that puts money in their accounts. Brands are curated, and people buy into stories that look larger than them; a collective goal, a philosophy all mixed with personal preservation and world good. 

STRATEGIC SCIENTIFIC STORYTELLING CAN INSPIRE ACTION

As an environmental biologist, I’ll start from home. Climate Change is a prominent field today. There is an environmental movement that has given birth to a lot of environmental initiatives. Some of which include the Climate change agreement, the agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emission and the total consciousness about reducing micro-plastics and non-degradable items. Even non-scientists can own these processes. But how did the environmental movement start? 

Rachel Carson published a book titled the silent spring in 1962. In her book, she documented the effect of pesticides on the environment. She wasn’t the first researcher to do so in the period when she did. But her book silent spring did inspire action. The reason was simple. 

Silent spring was not just a scientific book. It was a master act in storytelling where she detailed years of pesticide use and the accompanying damage, using real human terms that were not esoteric. She made sure to tie every effect to consequences and events people noticed every day but didn’t necessarily know the source. But she didn’t end there. With a laser-focused approach, she included a prediction of what would happen if nothing was done. The picture was grim. She hit a home run. By the time her book was done, it was a documentation of irrefutable proof on the adverse effect of pesticides on the environment. The effect? She was called to testify a year later before congress. This is a summary. There is no telling the kind of war she fought to get that level of action but by now, I think the point is clear. That was the birth of the environmental revolution. 

Today, the issues are replete but if we cannot tell the stories properly to inspire the action we think are crucial for human survival as uncovered by the groundbreaking research that has been carried out, isn’t the aim of such research defeated?  

Efforts towards conservation and diversity science, recycling drives, humanitarian efforts, technological implementation, biodegradable products, financial inclusion and a host of others have all thrived when they have been matched by indisputable storytelling. This is a proven recipe for success. Humans might not respond to numbers but they will respond to stories that hit home. 

STORYTELLING CAN CONNECT HIDDEN DOTS FOR COLLABORATION IN SCIENCE 

Science is a large but interwoven field. An expert scientist in one field can be a first degree alien in another field, even if collaboration is necessary to find a solution. Storytelling can soften this gap and divide and act as a buffer and common language for collaboration across multiple fields. With the problem and possible solution outlined and explained in human terms, ideation, creativity and conceptualization can be easier and faster. 

The outcome of scientific research is not for scientists alone. Every scientist can generate data, crunch numbers and identify solutions. But we need more scientists that can marry these abilities with effective storytelling that inspires action, no matter how small the research might look. 

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Gabriel

    Inspiring piece. As a researcher and data consultant, i have advocated for better result presentations, one easily understood by a lay man.

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